The last year has been filled with milestones for Nigerian American illustrator and fine artist Chioma Ebinama. The Whitney Museum of American Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art both acquired her work for their collections. She also made her debut as a picture book illustrator, providing lush nature-filled watercolors for Emile and the Field (Make Me a World), a book written by Kevin Young about the attachment a child forms to a field as it changes through the seasons.
“Books are my cup of tea,” Ebinama says, describing them as “a democratic medium. It made me really happy that the same year that I had work brought into the Whitney and LACMA collections, I also had a book come out into the world for everyday people.”
Growing up in suburban Maryland, Ebinama knew early on that she wanted to be an artist or animator. As a regular patron of her local library, she would check out how-to-draw books and copy illustrations from favorite picture books, such as If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. She was also “obsessed” with Hilary Knight’s version of Beauty and the Beast, with its art nouveau–inspired illustrations, and Kevin Henkes’s Chrysanthemum, about a mouse with an unusual name—something she says she “really identified with, having a Nigerian name in the States.”
Beyond library books, Ebinama wasn’t surrounded by art as a child. “Books were very much my entryway into art, because I didn’t grow up going to museums,” she says, reflecting on a childhood that was also often spent outdoors, exploring nature with her twin brother. “I grew up kind of like Emile,” she says. “There was this magic in being out in nature.”
Working on the book during a lengthy Covid lockdown in Athens, Greece, Ebinama took inspiration from these early, unbounded experiences to create some of her favorite scenes in the book, such as a light-infused summer spread of Emile in a flower-filled field. “I knew I wanted the sky to be pink and for it to feel warm and sweet and hazy, like summer,” she says. She also drew from daily walks with her puppy, Luna (who appears in the book to create a sense of continuity), during which she took particular note of the shape and color of different plants.
Though natural motifs abound in Ebinama’s fine art, too, for this project she used a different color palette, and she found that her creative process diverged from her standard approach.
“I’m drawn to watercolors because I’m impatient,” she says, reflecting on how slow, by comparison, the step-by-step process of making a book is. “But I enjoyed making sketches, making a book dummy, and then executing the dummy, and now I’m thinking about how I can take some of that way of working and bring it more into the fine art practice.”
For graduate school, Ebinama attended the School of Visual Art’s Illustration as Visual Essay program, which she credits with giving her a strong foundation in using images to tell a story, but post-graduation attempts to break into publishing failed to pan out. Instead, Ebinama’s path to picture books came about through a “serendipitous” encounter with Christopher Myers, creative director of Random House’s Make Me a World imprint and someone she describes as a “fairy godfather.”
“I told him I was still doing some freelance work as an editorial illustrator, but had started to make the shift into fine arts because I’d given up on illustration,” she says. “He asked me to give him samples of my work and I sent him a PDF of a children’s book I had made in grad school. And he showed it to executive art director Nicole de las Heras and executive editor Michelle Frey, and they loved it.”
The relationship was such a warm and trusting one that she’s already begun talking to Myers about another project, this time as both author and illustrator. Ebinama says she will likely use West Africa as inspiration and will start with text rather than images.
“As I was building my career, a lot of people told me you either have to be an illustrator or you have to be a fine artist,” she says. With this year’s successes, she’s clearly proven that her art can bloom wherever she decides to share it.
Erica Wetter is a writer living in the Bay Area.